May 31, 2004

Another overnegation opportunity: yet vs. yet to

Glen Whitman of agoraphilia emailed to ask

You ended your post on the poetry of Rumsfeld with the following: "No one, as far as we know, has yet set to music the press releases of the Plain English Campaign." Isn't that one of those "double negations" you and your co-bloggers have discussed in some recent posts?

After all, I for one have not set those press releases to music, which means you can't (on a literal interpretation) say that *no one* has yet to do so.

I make plenty of mistakes -- although the rumor that Geoff Pullum gets teaching relief from UCSC in return for editing my posts is not true -- but I'm innocent in this case. The cited sentence wasn't a case of overnegation, because there's a difference between "(not) have yet V+en" and "have yet to V", and I used the first of these rather than the second.

Here's (the relevant bit of) the AH Dictionary's entry for yet:

1. At this time; for the present: isn't ready yet. 2. Up to a specified time; thus far: The end had not yet come.

We can just substitute "at this time" or "for the present" into the cited sentence, to clarify the meaning at the expense of complicating the form. Maybe "up to the present time" would be even clearer:

"No one, as far as we know, has up to the present time set to music the press releases of the Plain English Campaign."

That's just what I meant, and it has just the right number of negatives in it.

GW was thinking of a different usage of yet, which the OED gives as sense 2.c.:

2.c. Followed by an infinitive referring to the future, and thus implying incompleteness (e.g. yet to be done, implying ‘not hitherto done’; I have yet to learn, implying ‘I have not hitherto learnt’). Cf. also 5.

This yet is not a polarity item, but it does imply a negative:

(a) Kim has yet to arrive  ⇔  (b) Kim has not yet arrived

My sentence was of type (b), but GW interpreted it as being of type (a) with an extra negative. In this case, I wasn't guilty -- but because this misinterpretation is only one little "to" away, at least with a verb like set whose past participle is the same as its bare stem, I probably should have chosen another wording.

Certainly plenty of others have made the mistake that GW attributed to me. There are 3,820 Google hits for "no one has yet to" -- that's 3,820 whG, or 891 whG/gp -- and all of those that I checked are overnegations (except for one or two that I couldn't understand):

(link) While no one has yet to describe England as the anti-Christ they have come close.
(link) No one has yet to compare these findings to possible early symptoms in men.
(link) one has yet to beat my $12,000 pc
(link) The property... has been advertised for sale for nearly a year and a half, and no one has yet to purchase it
(link) No one has yet to figure out why ... they got it in their heads to film a "real lemming migration" ...
(link) No one has yet to sign on to star in the film.
etc., etc.

So we can add "no one has yet to" to the case of " fail to miss", as an example of a phrase that is almost always used to mean the opposite of its compositional meaning.

I guess that " construction grammar" implies that this is possible and even normal, but it still seems like a mistake to me.

A couple of other "yet" notes in passing.... We ought to be able to unify the AHD's two senses of this yet with a somewhat more abstract definition: "up to an implicitly specified time", where the time can be past (sense 2) or present (sense 1). The OED does this with its sense 2.a.:

2. a. (a) Implying continuance from a previous time up to and at the present (or some stated) time: Now as until now (or then as until then): = STILL adv.

This yet has become a "polarity item" (though other senses have not): the AHD's examples are negative for a reason. We no longer say "It's ready yet" meaning "it's still ready" -- we only say "it's not ready yet" or "is it ready yet"? There are plenty of other interesting semantic issues associated with the word yet, not least the question of how far to go in unifying its protean spread of structures and senses. Not all of the examples below are currently colloquial, but it's just as important to explain what we don't (or no longer) say, as what we do:

He may yet change his mind.
The Sekhti came yet, and yet again.
My sandals were worse yet.
Averse alike to Flatter, or Offend,/Not free from Faults, nor yet too vain to mend.
The tracks include..‘To Know Him is to Love Him’ (with David Bowie on saxophone, yet!).
A yet-warm corpse, and yet unburiable.
The swampy patches of yet unreclaimed forest.
This is the queerest thing yet!
Are we there yet?
Even yet not quite finished.
O merchants, tarry yet a day Here in Bokhara.
But there were..extensions of this practice as yet but little noticed.
As yet the Duke professed himself a member of the Anglican Church.
He was one of the numerous party of yet walkers in the world.
In the yet non-existence of language.
The splendid yet useless imagery.
Though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds, becomes his heresie.
Surely I could always be that way again, and yet/ I've grown accustomed to her looks...

(quotes mostly but not all from the OED's citations)

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 31, 2004 10:26 AM